Welcome to day 8 of Know Justice, Know Peace: A Jesuit Anti-Racism Retreat. My name is Matt Briand and I’m with The Jesuit Post. Today we are continuing our Third Week, focusing on the suffering of Christ which continues in the brutal realities of racism. First, let’s begin with a prayer.
From Psalm 13:
How long, O Lord? Will you utterly forget me?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I carry my soul in sorrow,
grief in my heart day after day?
In a recent article in America Magazine, Jesuit priest, Mario Powell identified this Psalm as the cry of black Americans. Fr. Powell describes the grief and frustration that he and other black Americans feel at once again being confronted by racist violence in America. But he also discusses how exhausted he feels at having conversations about racism with white friends and fellow Jesuits. While acknowledging the importance of these conversations, he explains, “They are exhausting because, I have found, that while white people can engage these issues at their leisure… and then withdraw again to their daily concerns, I cannot do that… Black America cannot do that. I am exhausted because we cannot withdraw from this painful cycle” of racist violence.
These are challenging words. For those of us who are white and desire to fight racism, we strive for solidarity. But Fr. Powell identifies a gap that separates white people from people of color. For those of us who are white, acknowledging racism is a choice that we make, day to day, moment to moment. But for people of color, racism is an inescapable reality. While those of us who are white may know a lot about racism, we frankly will not know it in the same personal way that people of color do.
What does this gap mean for the possibility of solidarity? If those of us who are white cannot know those same wounds in the same way, we may ask if true solidarity is even possible. But, solidarity is not about becoming identical to others. Rather, it is grounded in love for others, and this is what makes solidarity possible across this gap.
Those of us who are white may point to our anti-racist activism as demonstrating our solidarity. But as River Simpson pointed out in the previous talk, and as Fr. Bryan Massingale has written in his book, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, such activism and solidarity must be preceded by lament and grief. Why is that? Because that’s how sincere love first responds to suffering.
When a 12-year old girl in the Philippines asked Pope Francis through her tears, why God allowed children to suffer evils such as prostitution and drug addiction, he embraced her, then turned to the crowd and said, “Let us learn to weep, as she has shown us today. Let us not forget this lesson….Certain realities in life we only see through our tears…If you don’t learn to cry, you can’t be good Christians. This is a challenge…Be courageous; don’t be afraid to cry.”
I’ll admit that I’m often afraid to take up this challenge. When George Floyd’s death made national news, I routinely opted to not watch the video of his killing. It took me two months before I finally brought myself to watch it. I knew racism was a problem. I had read plenty of history. I was informed about racial wealth gaps. I even ministered in African American communities in North and East St. Louis and could see the effects of systemic racism in these neighborhoods.
I never explicitly said this to myself, but my underlying attitude to the video of Floyd’s killing was, “I already know racism is a problem in our country and this is just one more example. I don’t need to see this video right now.”
I was approaching racism solely with my head, and not with my heart, being more tied to knowing than loving. But as St. Paul says, “if I…comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge…but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2)
I had the privilege of distancing myself from this violence, of shielding my eyes and comfort from this gruesome video. The black teenagers and black boys on the cusp of adolescence I minister to in St. Louis, however, do not have the privilege to remain ignorant of such suffering.
Neglecting to be moved by the killing of George Floyd, to fully lament and grieve its horror was failing to love the inherent dignity of his life. It was also a failure to love those kids in my youth ministry programs by not witnessing to and lamenting the evil and suffering they face simply for being black in America.
As Jesus hung from the cross, dying at the hands of the authorities of his day, three people who loved him deeply stood at the foot of the cross: His mother Mary, and his friends, Mary Magdalene, and John, the beloved disciple. They loved Him so deeply that they went to the cross to witness and lament His torturous death, even as they suffered their own heart-wrenching grief, even as they were powerless to stop the suffering.
We do, however, have the power to end racism. It will just take a lot of work and a reliance on God’s grace. But if all we care about is changing structures and institutions, we’re not Christians, but zealots, seeking solutions only in impersonal political systems. Our Christian faith calls us to not just stand with others, but to be in relationship with others. And if we do that, then we will surely grieve, but like the Blessed Mother, Mary Magdalene and John, we’ll continue to stand beside those who suffer, not because we expect success, but because love compels us to be faithful. Then, we will be in true solidarity.
To continue praying on this theme, I invite you to pray with John’s account of the crucifixion.
- Before reading, ask God for this grace that St. Ignatius encourages for the Third Week of the Spiritual Exercises: “ask [God] for grief with Christ in grief, anguish with Christ in anguish, tears and interior pain at such great pain which Christ suffered for me.”
- Then read John 19:16-30 two or three times.
- Next, meditate on the scene by offering your imagination to God. Be patient and let God reveal the scene to you. Engage your senses. Imagine standing with Mary, Mary Magdalene and John. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel?
- After contemplating the scene, have a conversation with Jesus. Ask him, “Lord, how are you still suffering in the bodies of black people, indigenous people, and other people of color? And how am I to love those in my own community or city and resist the structures and forces that cause them to suffer?”
I would like to close by once again quoting from Fr. Mario Powell:
“Structures will not change until white America – which means individual white Americans – gets close to black and brown people….[U]ntil you can see in those nine minutes [of George Floyd’s murder] a black man as a brother and not withdraw from his suffering; until you can feel the pain of that knee on your own neck and suddenly find it hard to breath in front of your computer screen; until then nothing will change. These structures will not change until that body has a name and relationship to you.”
Now let us pray.
Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O Good Jesus, hear me.
Within your wounds, hide me.
Permit me not to be separated from you.
From the wicked foe, defend me.
At the hour of my death, call me
And bid me to come to you
That with your saints I may praise you
For ever and ever.
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